2003 Conference Proceedings

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ACCESSIBILITY AND USABILITY ISSUES OF INTERNET PORTALS

Presenter
Gabriele Nordbrock
Henrike Gappa
Carlos A. Velasco
Yehya Mohamad
Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Informationstechnik (FIT.LIFE)
Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology
Schloss Birlinghoven, D53757 Sankt Augustin (Germany)
gabriele.nordbrock@fit.fraunhofer.de´
henrike.gappa@fit.fraunhofer.de´
velasco@fit.fraunhofer.de´
mohamad@fit.fraunhofer.de´

Introduction

Internet portals are a growing service in the World Wide Web offering a starting point to find in-depth information about a variety of topics like travel, health or employment. They are also widely used to search for different products. Due to the huge amount of information stored, the structure of Internet portals is rather complex and the information presented on one web page is very compact. Yet, little is known about accessibility and usability issues of such web services for people with disabilities and elderly persons. The authors conducted a user requirements collection with 23 disabled and 6 older people, whose results are briefly presented in the following sections.

Methodology

The purpose of this study was to gather qualitative rather than quantitative data, since individual views on accessibility and usability issues are very important for the development of a comprehensive understanding of the barriers encountered by the target group. In order to ensure validity of data, each user group under consideration was represented by at least 6 test participants (Maguire et al., 1998). Therefore, 6 persons with physical impairments, 6 persons with hearing impairments, 10 persons with learning disabilities and 6 older persons participated in the study. Since much is known already about the needs of people with visual impairments, this user group was not in the main focus of our study, although one blind Internet expert participated.

For data collection, the following tools were used: questionnaires, a standard information seeking task, logfile recordings and observational protocols. A questionnaire was designed to gather data about the personal, educational and professional backgrounds, and about the level of Internet expertise of the test participants. Questionnaires were also used to assess accessibility issues and the suitability of the structure and layout of the German Internet portal Web.de. Furthermore, the test participants were asked to articulate their requirements in open questions and by selecting proposed changes, adaptations and enhancements of functionalities of such web services from checklists.

The standard information seeking task was designed according to typical activities users engage in when visiting an Internet portal. Test participants were asked to find information in the portal on different levels of the hierarchy. They needed to employ navigation strategies and to extract key information from the visited webpages in order to fulfil the assignment.

Results

Summarizing, all test participants reported problems when visiting complex, nested websites with much information presented on their webpages, as it is the case of Internet portals. In order to support the adequate navigation of such web services for all user groups participating in this study, an advanced search function needs to be provided. This function must be able to neglect typing mistakes, to recognize the root of a word (in case the word is typed in a declined form, frequent in some languages like German), to identify synonyms, to reflect the content and functionality of the portal (e.g. associate search terms with the main navigational anchors of the site) and to always allow the user to keep track of her search efforts. If after several trials, the search engine was not able to provide meaningful results, it must be able to suggest alternative keywords according to users' history of search queries. Offering indexes that accommodate the users' perspective also turned out to be crucial for successful navigation. That means that most user groups have certain questions or intentions in mind when visiting an Internet portal which need to be considered in the wording and arrangement of the links.

It became also obvious that the meaningful naming of links and the presentation of warnings when a link leads to a website outside the portal, would have helped the test participants to gain orientation in the portal. Particularly the disabled test participants had problems with finding information that could only be viewed by using the scroll bar, so it is recommendable not to present long pages to avoid scrolling.

Learning disabled and hearing impaired users articulated a strong need for a clear structure in the way information is presented on a webpage, e.g. by using headers, distinct spacing between paragraphs and colour coding. Colour coding is a very powerful tool particularly for this user group in order to e.g., differentiate between different types of information like menu buttons as opposed to general links, headers as opposed to text body, and to link information to keywords.

For older people, it is important to consider that they draw much on prior experiences with other media like books when seeking information in web services like Internet portals. The design and layout of an Internet portal must take these habits into account, particularly since this user group has proven to be very goal-oriented in their navigation patterns, but showed the least frustration tolerance. Therefore, they will leave a web service very quickly, if the information searched for could not be found easily.

For all groups who took part in this user study, jargon and complex writing style pose an obstacle for successful information seeking. Also, it could be seen that the vast majority of the test participants did not know where to customize the browser according to their needs, e.g. enlarge the font size. This finding matches results of a previous study (Gappa et al., 2001) and suggests to offer a clearly visible extra button for customization according to the user's preferences.

References

  1. Maguire, M.C., Heim J., Endestad, T., Skjetne, J.H., Vereker, N. (1998). Requirements Specification and Evaluation for User Groups with Special Needs. Telematics Application Project TE 2010 "Requirements Engineering and Specification in Telematics (RESPECT)". Available at: http://www.ejeisa.com/nectar/respect/6.2/index.htm
  2. Gappa, H., Nordbrok, G., Mohamad, Y., Velasco, C.A., et al. (2001). Requirements analysis for enabling people with special needs to access Internet-based services. IRIS Consortium, IST-2000-26211.

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